This article originally appeared in Calmatters on August 31, 2022.
Over the past decade, California has gone from being the state with the least groundwater regulation to adopting a law that serves as an international model. How the state implements its landmark groundwater law during California’s worst drought on record could inform global climate change adaptation practices for generations.
The Golden State has one shot over the course of the next 20 years to bring its depleted aquifers into balance and achieve sustainability. Californians are counting on the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to get the state there.
Carrying out the act, however, isn’t easy. While many honest actors at the state and local level want the new regulation to succeed, the law calls for undoing a century of unsustainable groundwater pumping. The forces that helped create the problem still stand in the way of reforming it.
The groundwater act requires more than 260 local agencies to draft sustainability plans that describe a process for balancing groundwater extraction with aquifer replenishment over 20 years. Approximately 107 plans have been submitted to the California Department of Water Resources. The department scrutinizes each local plan and can reject those that fail to complete the assignment. Rejected plans are placed under control of the State Water Resources Control Board, which manages water quality and environmental protection.
Earlier this year, the department approved eight local plans and marked 35 incomplete, requiring revisions and resubmission. The department also guides local agencies on the technical aspects of maintaining water supply for their communities and ecosystems.